Inundated with the stress of a high school junior, I found myself at age seventeen feeling deeply unfulfilled in my daily life. I was constantly in a state of urgency and anxiety, and never felt like there was enough time in the day to appreciate or enjoy life. With all of my attention and energy devoted to schoolwork and ultimately college acceptance, it seemed like I was forced to sacrifice my daily happiness for distant goals. While I spent day after day going through the motions of a hardworking high school student, there seemed to be something more profound and meaningful in my life that was missing. I was constantly haunted by a fear that if I died one of those nights, I would feel like I never really lived.
My perceived necessity to constantly prioritize my goals and prospective happiness at the expense of my present happiness confused and saddened me. However, towards the end of my junior year I discovered Ralph Waldo Emerson, a nineteenth century American philosopher whose beliefs uniquely diverged from his contemporaries. I was inspired by how he saw the world, and the feelings of helplessness that had troubled me for so long began to dissipate. After reading one of his most famous essays, “Nature,” I opened up to the idea that happiness was attainable by appreciating the ordinary pleasures that surrounded me, like the sound of my mom’s voice waking me up in the morning, or the thin streak of light that illuminates my favorite study spot at 5 p.m. every afternoon.
In “Nature,” Emerson writes, “I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me. But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars.” Because our minds are always filled with cultural and societal impressions, we are never truly alone with our thoughts. But if we are dedicated and determined enough to attempt to free ourselves from such a mental burden, we can experience a profound stillness and appreciation for just existing in the world we live in.
I was amazed by the sense of wonder and joy possible through just paying attention to and deeply appreciating the unexceptional everyday events in our lives. And, while not much changed in terms of school and commitments, I became increasingly aware of the small pleasures that always surrounded me, and the joy that I gained from this discovery allowed me to go to sleep every night feeling like I had lived.
What I wasn’t aware of at seventeen was that this way of thinking, or way of life rather, has a name. It’s called mindfulness, and there is an entire movement around it. Mindfulness is defined as a non-judgmental state of heightened awareness of thoughts, emotions, and experiences on a moment-by-moment basis. From experience, I can tell you that this definition becomes more and more meaningful as you develop a meditative practice and study the philosophy that led to such a definition.
During my time at Duke, I have learned about mindfulness and meditation, as well as contemplative neuroscience, an area of study that integrates western knowledge of the brain with Buddhist practices such as meditation, and in the past month, I have created my own major, titled Cognitive Neuroscience. My intention in creating this major, which centers around neuroplasticity, brain activation, and the relationship between behavior and the brain, is to combine this knowledge with my personal exploration of Buddhism and meditation in order to develop a deeper appreciation for contemplative science and the neurological and psychological underpinnings of mindfulness and happiness.
While I have integrated the practice and philosophy of meditation into my academics and my daily life at Duke, I have only begun to scratch the surface of the teachings in this field. This summer will be a chance for me to explore this area in a much more profound way. In June, I will attend the Mind and Life Summer Research Conference, which brings together top researchers in neuroscience, psychology, meditation, and Buddhism to foster an interdisciplinary exploration of the mind. I’ll fly directly from this conference to Amaravati, the first Theravada Buddhist monastery in England, where I will spend one month living as a monastic and studying Buddhist meditation and texts. I know that my experiences this summer will be transformative, and I look forward to documenting them here for myself and for you.
Gigi Falk, a sophomore at Duke University, is studying cognitive neuroscience with a focus in contemplative sciences. She is interested in exploring the intersection of mindfulness and neuroscience, in order to foster a deep and thorough understanding of meditation as mental training for a more fulfilling life. By exploring happiness and fulfillment as something that is internally driven and supporting such claims with science-based evidence, she hopes to contribute to the dialogue surrounding western meditation with a distinct voice.
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Originally published at www.huffingtonpost.com on May 5, 2016.